Sunday, 6 September 2009
Books: Ground Control – Fear and Happiness in the Twenty First Century by Anna Minton
Star rating - 5/10
This is an interesting and well argued book about how changes in property ownership and control, badged as regeneration, coupled with Government policy on anti social behaviour, have fundamentally affected British society, and not for the better. Well argued – but nevertheless some of the arguments used are unfortunately flawed.
Minton starts off by taking up through the development of faceless privately owned shopping malls in our city centres, and the increase in gated communities and demise of social housing for our homes. She describes how the increase in emphasis on us all having some defensible space around our properties has left us all feeling paranoid and fearful of crime, even when official statistics show this is not matched by reality.
She takes us through the official answer to the blight of low demand in some, mainly northern, cities was answered by the creation of Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders. These HMRPs, she feels, were imposed on local communities, many of whom have battled to stop their terraced homes being demolished on a wholesale basis. Sounds convincing – but the problem with her argument as a general theory here is that many of the areas affected were truly deserted with no one wanting to live there, with only those who had no choice still remaining. Communities had already voted with their feet, rather than being cynically manipulated out of their neighbourhoods by manipulative housing associations and local councils. So rather than being sinister attempts at ‘social cleaning’ as Minton argues, this was the market failing. And it is also too easy just to concentrate on housing policy as this book seems to do – there were other deep seated social and economic factors at play here such as unemployment, crime and changes in the social fabric of our world from when these areas where thriving, healthy communities. Whilst it is a very welcome addition to the debate on our changing world, it is far too simplistic to say that poverty has largely been caused by housing policy as Minton does here.
She goes on to examine the New Labour focus on Respect and anti social behaviour. Whilst I have a lot of sympathy with the argument that the current Government has chopped and changed its direction here, paid lip service to the real issues, and used crime figures for its own ends, again the arguments used are not thorough enough. It is not true to say that anti social behaviour is mainly targeted at the activities of young people. It does not help to achieve clarity by trivialising the serious and necessary work that has been ongoing in Manchester and other places to stop behaviour that amounts to harassment and terrorising from blighting some people’s lives. Yes the Government use all this for their own ends, but that is nothing new. It is also not helpful to ignore the positive work that has been used to incentivise, encourage and reward more positive behaviour that is going on in so many parts of the communities she talks about, by so many different agencies.
Minton feels that we would all be happier if we adopted continental European attitudes to space, planning and control of behaviour. Maybe we would. But it needs to be about more than just housing, planning and the privatisation of our cities. Property developers are evil figures lurking at every corner for Minton, but she is wrong, for example, to blame the redevelopment of the Hacienda, the famous iconic Manchester nightclub, into flats on them. Its demise had more to do with gang and gun related drug crime.
So yes let’s by all means have a healthy debate, but let’s look at all the angles. Cities like Manchester are fabulous places to live in. The real problems we need to tackle are about all forms of inequality and not just about who controls the city centres we work and shop in, and the homes we live in.